James Taylor Quartet Big Band – From the Cat to the Moon
(Queen Elizabeth Hall. 24th March 2014. Review by Sarah Chaplin)
There was a real buzz among those who gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday night for the James Taylor Quartet, comprising the man himself, Mark Cox on guitar, Andrew McKinney on bass and Pat Illingworth on drums, still going strong after twenty-eight years, performing a wide range of material from Jimmy Smith numbers to material from their latest album, Closer to the Moon.
The line-up chosen to augment the quartet was a somewhat unlikely-looking combination of an impressive big band drawn from trumpeter Nick Smart’s Royal Academy of Music crew, who populated one half of the stage, and Taylor’s beloved local Rochester Cathedral Choir led by Scott Farrell, who occupied the other half, resplendent in their red cassocks and white ruffs. Add to that flute supremo Gareth Lockrane and rising stars Ralph Wyld on vibes and percussion and Josh Arcoleo and you’ve got the makings of something pretty special.
The original quartet played in their first number Parallelo to remind everyone (who could forget) of their signature sound, with Taylor on great form with his Hammond and his Leslie. And what a showman: the energy levels were unstoppable right from the word go, and once the choir was arcing over the top of a funky bass line with rich soprano washes, the effect was mesmerising.
The arrangements were a very satisfying and varied mix of instrumentation, musical genres, rhythms and harmonies, starting with the JTQ theme followed by jazz waltz Proctor on three closely-voiced horns. The big band and choir were then employed on an epic new Bond-esque number called Spencer Takes a Trip, which proved something of a cultural and stylistic balancing act between classical and full-on funk. There were a couple of very effective Oliver Nelson big band arrangements, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Theme from the Carpetbaggers, then a lush original called Drifting, before they ushered Yvonne Yanney on stage to add her wonderful dance-anthem vocals on songs like the laid back groove Love TKO.
Somewhere in amongst all the craziness they played Herbie Hancock’s tune Blow Up, their first single back in 1986 which Taylor fondly remembered John Peel playing regularly on his show, so much so it made it onto his Festive Fifty of ‘87. I suppose I was expecting more from their innovative Acid Jazz output that followed and gave rise to a genre of music that dominated the late 80s and 90s. But I hadn’t taken into account they’d called this gig From the Cat to the Moon, intending it to be as much a celebration of a much earlier era of Hammond-led exuberance. So there were blues galore, and we even had an impromptu rendition of Green Onions to open the second set, with Taylor calling for solos from band members with a simple sweep of his arm. At one point he walked to the back of the stage and swept aside the curtain to reveal a church organ, which he played for one number with the choir.
Taylor had also written a suitably funky piece of choral music – his take on Kyrie Eleison – specially for the Rochester Cathedral Choir, really bringing to the fore their magical blend of voices. Sometimes when you closed your eyes, it was one fabulously atmospheric film soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin. Taylor himself sang on some numbers, including the beautifully paced Closer to You performed as a duet with Yanney. There were some wonderful solos, particularly from Betts, Smart, Wyld and Lockrane, and then, quite appropriately but all too soon, the evening ended with All Wrapped Up.
And now I have to admit something: whilst I went along hoping for an acid jazz nostalgia fix, I came away wanting to dig out some more of the Jimmy Smith back catalogue, and I can’t think of a better tribute to one of the best Hammond players alive today. JTQ: you rock!